When I first went to Zareen’s, a Pakistani restaurant in Palo Alto, I was astounded by the long but orderly line, the delicious chai (please limit yourself to three cups, a sign suggested), and the rich mango lassi.
“That’s because we put a lot of mango in,” owner Zareen Khan said. In one corner, a mural of the late Qandeel Baloch has the words Behen Chara (“sisterhood”) painted across.
Khan’s story begins with South Asian women. “I really want them to get out of the house and…be as good as their husbands,” she said to me. “Or better. And be out there, inspire other women. It makes me sad to see...how I spent the first 10 years [after graduation].”
Khan, who met her husband in high school in Pakistan, moved to the United States after marriage. While he was studying at MIT, she found herself bored at home. She had an MBA from Pakistan and was the first woman treasurer at her business school. “I was used to a very busy life. I came here on an F-2 visa [for dependent spouses], so it was so hard for me to even do something.”
She decided to go to Northeastern and get a Masters in economics and had her first kid while there, at 25. A friend at the medical school would babysit her daughter. In return, Khan would cook for both of them. Khan still graduated with a 3.9 GPA.
After graduation, Khan, her husband, and her daughter moved to the Bay Area, where she worked for 10-12 years for various tech startups. But, “corporate America didn't really excite me.” One day, in 2008, when picking up her kids from school, she found herself barely present. “I'm here, I'm supposed to be with my kids, and enjoy, and find out what they did, and I'm still at work [mentally]…So, after that, I quit.”
Khan felt a familiar feeling: boredom, with few options. Her husband suggested that she open a restaurant. “How could I ever do a restaurant?” she asked. She had three kids, and her husband was an entrepreneur who had to travel. “I was always good at [cooking] but it wasn't something I [was] crazy about.”
She cooked partially to preserve her Memoni heritage. Khan, whose parents are from Porbandar, Gujarat and Bombay, describes Memoni food as similar to Gujarati food, with staples like chicken memoni samosas and akhni, a dish similar to biryani. Both families moved to Pakistan during Partition. “Memon, the group, they have a dialect, but it’s not written. All these amazing recipes are going to die if nobody [documents them].” She reflected, “I just wanted to do it for my kids. One day, they’d want to have a look.”
Rather than open a restaurant, which felt intimidating at the time, Khan launched a home cooking class, and created a Facebook event for it. Staying at home let her spend more time with her kids. She charged the 10-15 students in each class — her first students were her friends — only $35 for two to three hours of instruction. “I started at $25, it went up to $35. Yes, it was a very bad business plan. It didn’t make any business sense, the amount of effort that was going into it, but I just did it because I wanted to do something.”
In Silicon Valley terms, this was Khan’s MVP. In 2010, she started thinking about how she could scale. Khan would often freeze what she cooked, such as kebabs, so that she could reheat them when she came home — the meal would be more nutritious than takeout. She found a catering kitchen on Craigslist and started making, freezing, and packaging kebabs. She made a free weebly.com website and added a PayPal link. Her first kebab customers were her cooking class patrons and working women. “It really took off,” she said. She would deliver to San Francisco, Berkeley, and other Bay Area locations.
The profit on each kebab, sold for $1.50 each, was still in the cents. But Khan was happy. “It was keeping me busy, it was growing, and I really liked it.”
Khan’s location in the Valley helped in many ways: she could cater to big tech firms and a burgeoning South Asian American population. Silicon Valley companies started providing free lunches, but didn’t always have in-house kitchens. Khan snagged her first weekly catering order, for lunch, when a friend suggested Khan visit his company so employees could sample her dishes. By 2011, Khan had pivoted to mostly catering and shuttered her cooking classes. Her staff would make frozen kebabs in between large catering orders.
In 2014, after a rift with the caterer in her shared kitchen, Khan started looking for her own place, again on Craigslist. She didn’t find a kitchen, but a small restaurant near Google in Mountain View. Khan thought, “before turning it into a kitchen, maybe I’ll try and see if I can manage it as a restaurant” — even though she knew Google provided free food just next door. She bought it for $75,000, with the help of her husband, and her savings from her business.
Six months later, she was doing 15- to 16-hour days, seven days a week. Without anyone to do the dishes, Khan would serve food on disposable plates with disposable utensils. Her first employee came with the restaurant. “I knew he was stealing from me, but even then, I could not fire him. I had no people.”
Her family started pitching in, from her husband, to her teenagers, who helped manage the till. Slowly, within that year, she hired her first reliable employees. Because she knew how to cook, Khan didn’t need to rely on chefs, who can easily move to other restaurants. Her first menu was small, focused on thalis and kebabs.
After that, “within three to four months, we were having lines out of the door. At that point, I decided there was no point changing into a kitchen.” She marks her success to the food — “people have a really, really positive response to the food” — and name recognition from her kebab and catering businesses.
To this day, Khan teaches her staff across her two locations. “The problem is having people stick to what I tell them to. So, I control a lot of the food process still.”
Zareen’s in Palo Alto has menu items such as “paleo salad,” which has pumpkin seeds, spicy kebab chicken, and tamarind dressing. The menu is inspired by her customers, like her friend Fariha (paleo salad), or her employees making something for themselves (tandoori sandwich). Every Thanksgiving, she serves Memoni samosas and a Memoni version of Burmese khao suey. She’ll have dishes such as “madras curry,” with customers complaining, ‘Why do we have Madras here when it’s a Pakistani restaurant?’ “It’s the same subcontinent,” Khan pointed out. She tests new items as specials before rolling out hits as permanent items. She removes items when she wants change.
In 2016, she started her second location in Palo Alto because the first became too crowded. She couldn’t expand to a larger space in Mountain View because Google was increasingly acquiring land and property. When she found her current Palo Alto space, she gave an offer that day, and closed the deal the next. “I think I'm paying the highest rent on California Avenue right now. My prices are the lowest on California Avenue, given the quality. So I wish I had negotiated a little more. But maybe I could have lost it,” she reflected. And she couldn’t have afforded that either.
As restaurants try to capitalize on wellness and claim to offer “healthier” Asian, Zareen’s stands out for a menu that you would eat at home, guiltlessly; after all, Asian food isn’t inherently unhealthy. “[South Asian] creamy dishes are more for the Western palette,” Khan reflected. “I did grow up having more oil-based dishes, because ghee is supposed to be therapeutic and gets the flavors and benefits out of the spices.” Khan cooks her dishes slowly so she can use less oil without sacrificing the flavor from spices. Her favorite is “palak gosht. It’s a drier spinach curry with fenugreek herb….We cook lamb with it, so it has a really complex flavor.” My mouth waters.
In true product management fashion, Khan asks me what I like about Zareen’s. I tell her that I had lived in Palo Alto in January as I was going through Y Combinator. I was missing New York and my mom’s cooking but I couldn’t forget Zareen’s chai, or its naan.
I ask: why the free chai? “Wherever you go in Pakistan or India, the first thing they ask you — even the shopkeepers — do you want some chai?” Khan shared. “For me, all my [customers] are like my guests. So, they come here and they get to see hospitality.”
Zareen’s Palo Alto has lines out the door throughout the day, from Stanford students to working professionals. Anyone who’s eaten there at least once is likely to come back.
“In both our restaurants, we have a really healthy mix of both South Asian and non-desis,” Khan said. “That’s how I planned it. I don’t want to do something specific to a certain group. I want people to experience our cooking and start with more traditional dishes, and go try some hardcore authentic dishes.” She’s reluctant to chalk up the popularity of Zareen’s to just the influx of immigrants in the Bay Area: “I’m sure the South Asian population has grown, since a lot of immigrants have come in,” Khan pointed out. But it’s not the only reason.
Khan believes her competition is other South Asian restaurants — Amber and Darbar are known staples in Palo Alto, sans long lines — but what makes Zareen’s stand out is its approachability. “We offer affordable, very fresh food. And it’s a little different from regular chef-made dishes. It’s more unique, I guess.”
As customers wait to order, they can look at New Yorker cartoons on the glass display case or even read a book. Khan picks and changes the cartoons, too. “That’s my fun part.”
Her advice for other entrepreneurs? “Not to give up. I see a lot of people have such great ideas and they give up so fast…Sometimes, you know, you start with an idea, you never know, as you go around you discover other routes, too.”
“A lot of people made fun of me too. ‘Hey, you have an MBA and you're making one-dollar kebabs, is everything okay?’...‘Oh, kebab queen is here.’” She paused. “But I don't care what they say. And now the same people are ‘Oh, we knew you would do so well.’”
Khan’s kids are now in college. She still works 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Silicon Valley luminaries like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have already visited Zareen’s, but Khan would love more Bollywood stars to come. One of her favorites is Deepika Padukone. What’s next? “I haven’t decided. Maybe another restaurant, maybe not.” She thinks Google might kick Zareen’s out of its Mountain View location, since it owns the land. Her third restaurant would need to accommodate that uncertainty. It won’t be in San Francisco, but maybe Santa Clara or San Mateo, she mused.
She hopes to keep working well into her 60s — one of her role models is Sultana Siddiqui, a director and producer who has made iconic dramas for Pakistani TV. “If she can do it, I can do it, too. And she created something extraordinary…Anybody can do whatever they want to, right?”
Snigdha Sur is founder & CEO of The Juggernaut. She loves reading novels and always has a pen on hand.
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